I can remember the argument as if it occurred yesterday, not a lifetime ago during my adolescence. I had just entered high school when one of my African-American peers related that he was going to attend Georgetown University after graduating from High School.
We all laughed at the suggestion of his attending such a prestigious institution, not because he was feeble-minded and it was outside of his reach, rather because of his logic for why he desired to be a Georgetown Hoya. He thought that Georgetown University, a relatively small Jesuit School located in Washington, D.C., a city that is commonly referred to as chocolate city due to the high concentration of African-Americans residents, was a predominantly Black institution; little did he know, the Black undergraduate population at the private institution was below five-percent at the time.
Now I am certain that you are wondering how in the world he could have concluded that Georgetown University was a Historically Black University, however, the answer is relatively simple; his only exposure to Georgetown University came via its basketball team that was headed by the legendary John Thompson at the time. Coach Thompson’s roster was stacked with Black players from top to bottom. Now we are all aware that race still matters in the U.S. and things can become a little ‘funky’ when it comes to the composition of our athletic teams. Put simply, white’s want their sons to have same race athletic heroes to admire.
However, the Georgetown Hoya’s on-court success muted any protests by white students, faculty, administrators, or alumni regarding the team’s racial composition. In fact, the Hoya’s, led by their All-American center Patrick Ewing brought home the school’s only NCAA Basketball Championship in 1984 when it defeated the Hakeem Olajuwon led Houston Rockets.
If one is not careful the racial make-up of a school’s football or basketball team may lead one to erroneously believe that the school is a historically Black university. However, even a cursory examination reveals their grievous error. In regards to Georgetown University, few African-Americans attended the institution at either the undergraduate or graduate levels. In fact, census data relate that Washington D.C. is majority African-American, however, only 6.3% of African-Americans attend Georgetown University as undergraduates; the percentages in the graduate and professional schools are even worse.
So as we embrace ‘March Madness’ and celebrate the spectacular feats by African-American athletes representing predominantly white institutions we must not be swept up in the euphoria that athletic competitions naturally engender. We must be mindful that these same institutions have historically, and are often continuing the tradition today, proven to be neither welcoming nor hospitable to African-American males when it comes to the admission of or retention of African-American students who are not participating in school sponsored athletic contests. Consider that every NCAA Division I coach negotiates with his university how many academic exceptions he will be allowed during his tenure as coach. An academic exception is little more than a fancy way of saying that the school agrees to look the other way when the coach desires to have a specific athlete(s) admitted who would under any other circumstances never be admitted. Unfortunately for African-American students who do not participate in athletics, it appears that only athletic prowess opens that closed university door.
If one were not careful, they may believe that the modern day Black male athlete is little more than a modern day slave that is being used for the sole purpose of the physical prowess that he brings to athletic contests. In many ways today’s African-American male athlete is analogous to the grease that is used to lubricate the means of production in any factory. Put simply, the Black male athlete is the grease that a factory worker uses to lubricate his machine. Unfortunately, the grease will be discarded after it has lost its viscosity. However the machinists need not worry because a new application of grease is always readily available.
So as we watch ‘March Madness’ let us stay grounded and focused that this is America and the high percentage of Black males running around trying to throw a ball through a metal hoop for the sake of some white institution does not mean that African-Americans are any closer to liberation, being allowed unfettered access to institutions of higher education, or that this nation has entered into a post-race period. As you watch ‘March Madness’ take the games for what they are, athletic contests, nothing more and nothing less. There is no symbolism to be gleaned from such contests, however, if you are not careful and you think hard enough, you may convince yourself that some major basketball powerhouse such as the University of Kentucky is actually a Historically Black institution; and trust me when I tell you, nothing, and I do mean nothing, could be further from the truth.
James Thomas Jones III
© Manhood, Race and Culture, 2015.